Here's a question that you should clip out and tape to your bathroom mirror. It might save you some angst 15 years from now. The question is, What did you do back when interest rates were at their lowest in 50 years, crime was close to zero, great employees were looking for good jobs, computers made product development and marketing easier than ever, and there was almost no competition for good news about great ideas?
Many people will have to answer that question by saying, "I spent my time waiting, whining, worrying, and wishing." Because that's what seems to be going around these days. Fortunately, though, not everyone will have to confess to having made such a bad choice.
While your company has been waiting for the economy to rebound, Reebok has launched Travel Trainers, a very cool-looking lightweight sneaker for travelers. They are selling out in Japan — from vending machines in airports!
While Detroit's car companies have been whining about gas prices and bad publicity for SUVs (SUVs are among their most profitable products), Honda has been busy building cars that look like SUVs but get twice the gas mileage. The Honda Pilot was so popular, it had a waiting list.
While Africa's economic plight gets a fair amount of worry, a little startup called ApproTEC is actually doing something about it. The new income that its products generate accounts for 0.5% of the entire GDP of Kenya. How? It manufactures a $75 device that looks a lot like a StairMaster. But it's not for exercise. Instead, ApproTEC sells the machine to subsistence farmers, who use its stair-stepping feature to irrigate their land. People who buy it can move from subsistence farming to selling the additional produce that their land yields — and triple their annual income in the first year of using the product.
While you've been wishing for the inspiration to start something great, thousands of entrepreneurs have used the prevailing sense of uncertainty to start truly remarkable companies. Lucrative Web businesses, successful tool catalogs, fast-growing PR firms — all have started on a shoestring, and all have been profitable ahead of schedule. The Web is dead, right? Well, try telling that to Meetup.com, a new Web site that helps organize meetings anywhere and on any topic. It has 200,000 registered users — and counting.
Maybe you already have a clipping on your mirror that asks you what you did during the 1990s. What's your biggest regret about that decade? Do you wish that you had started, joined, invested in, or built something? Are you left wishing that you'd at least had the courage to try? In hindsight, the 1990s were the good old days. Yet so many people missed out. Why? Because it's always possible to find a reason to stay put, to skip an opportunity, or to decline an offer. And yet, in retrospect, it's hard to remember why we said no and easy to wish that we had said yes.
The thing is, we still live in a world that's filled with opportunity. In fact, we have more than an opportunity — we have an obligation. An obligation to spend our time doing great things. To find ideas that matter and to share them. To push ourselves and the people around us to demonstrate gratitude, insight, and inspiration. To take risks and to make the world better by being amazing.
Are these crazy times? You bet they are. But so were the days when we were doing duck-and-cover air-raid drills in school, or going through the scares of Three Mile Island and Love Canal. There will always be crazy times.
So stop thinking about how crazy the times are, and start thinking about what the crazy times demand. There has never been a worse time for business as usual. Business as usual is sure to fail, sure to disappoint, sure to numb our dreams. That's why there has never been a better time for the new. Your competitors are too afraid to spend money on new productivity tools. Your bankers have no idea where they can safely invest. Your potential employees are desperately looking for something exciting, something they feel passionate about, something they can genuinely engage in and engage with.
You get to make a choice. You can remake that choice every day, in fact. It's never too late to choose optimism, to choose action, to choose excellence. The best thing is that it only takes a moment — just one second — to decide.
Before you finish this paragraph, you have the power to change everything that's to come. And you can do that by asking yourself (and your colleagues) the one question that every organization and every individual needs to ask today: Why not be great?
Seth Godin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an author based outside New York. Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable (Portfolio, 2003) is his latest book.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.